How well thinking abilities and functioning return after substance use the focus of new six-year study

Brain illustration
A new six-year study by U of T Scarborough researchers will look at how well thinking and functioning in daily life return following substance use (Image by Wenjin Chen/iStock)

Don Campbell

A team of U of T Scarborough researchers have started a groundbreaking six-year study looking at the effect of addiction recovery on cognitive ability.

The research will be done in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Addictions (CCFA) and involves studying whether thinking abilities return to normal after abstaining from various substance use, how long it takes, and whether rehabilitative strategies can help this process.

Konstantine Zakzanis, a professor in the department of psychology at U of T Scarborough who will lead the project, says what’s unique about the study is that it will follow participants right as they enter treatment and follow them throughout their recovery.  

“We’re going to be able to examine data at different points over a six-year span, which is a very novel approach,” says Zakzanis, a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and psychologist whose research specializes in assessing traumatic brain injury, dementia, depression and substance use.

“If someone relapses, we can test to see if their cognition and their resultant functioning is acutely affected or if it’s more of a gradual process.”

Konstantine Zakzanis
Professor Konstantine Zakzanis specializes in assessing traumatic brain injury, dementia, depression and substance use.

He says the research will also examine how other variables such as personality type, socioeconomic status, age, sex, gender, as well as linguistic and cultural group of the participants might influence this relationship.

Zakzanis says that existing research focuses on the adverse effects substance use has on thinking ability such as impaired memory, concentration, and decision-making, but far less is known about how these abilities may or may not return to normal after people stop using drugs and/or alcohol over the long term.

“We really want to look at meaningful data points that are important to our participants — not just whether their concentration or memory has improved on a specific test employed within the study,” he says. “We want to know whether they are better able to function in daily life and hold down a job as a result of improved thinking abilities,” he says. 

The study, which is being supported by Mitacs, a Canadian-based not-for-profit organization that helps fund research and development projects, will involve participants at inpatient treatment facilities across southern Ontario.  

Seth Fletcher, a certified addictions counselor and general manager at CCFA, says the partnership with the university reflects CCFA’s commitment to medical training and research in better understanding addiction and healing.

“Providing rigorous research methodology regarding how an individual’s personal makeup contributes to their predilection for substance abuse or eschewing it, helps addictions specialists create new and tailored services based on research,” he says.

“Participating in this step forward in understanding addiction and treatment is ground-breaking and exciting for the CCFA.”